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Application Profile: High tide for new research


November 15, 2015  


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Calgary wastewater plant home to world's first fully integrated facility

Earlier this year, Calgary made history when it became home to the first fully integrated fully contained university research facility located within an operating industrial wastewater treatment plant in the world.

The $38.5-million Advanced Canadian Wastewater Assets (ACWA) facility, which was 15 years in the making, is located at the Pine Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. It's vision is to allow university researchers to work under the same roof with municipal operators to advance wastewater treatment technologies and knowledge that leads to cleaner water, a better protected ecosystem and improved public health.

The concept was first suggested in the late 1990s under the premise that an on-site research facility would allow municipalities to solve problems as they arise, as well as ones that might present themselves in the future, says Lee Jackson scientific director at ACWA and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Calgary.

"The initial concentration is on removing pharmaceuticals and personal care products from our wastewater," he says. "It's also about demonstrating, presumably, better environmental performance with the experimental streams. That involves measuring the responsive organisms in the streams — from the scum that grows on the rocks to the bugs that are crawling around the gravel to the fish that we put in the stream."

The research facility itself include 3.8 kilometres of naturalized, experimental streams that replicate real-life water situations. The 12 steams, which measure 320 metres each, will provide researchers with the ability to study how actual wastewater effluent impacts living ecosystems in real time.

"The research streams, there's nothing else like them in the world," says Jackson. "We've basically built an outdoor laboratory." The facility also features an analytical laboratory where the biological and chemical characteristics of wastewater and treat effluents are analyzed. The lab is supported by additional facilities at the University of Calgary. Jackson says the research facility is also about developing better diagnostic tools — tools that are indicative of how well organisms are performing in the environment.

"Normally, that's done in the laboratory," he says. "But when you go out into the natural world, the laboratory results often don't apply because the natural world is a bit more complicated. In the Bow River, for example, there could be hundreds and thousands of chemicals in the water."

Research done at ACWA will result in wastewater treatment technologies that remove existing and emerging contaminants to improve ecosystem and human health, creating clean, sustainable sources of water locally and globally.

"We now have the control and replication that can defend the science," says Jackson. As part of the project, ACWA was awarded $10.4 million in funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and a matching amount from Alberta Innovation and Advanced Education.

Calgary — and, by virtue, other jurisdictions — stand to benefit from the research in many ways, not the least of which includes the ability to assess new technologies and substances in a controlled environment, with results directly influencing policy and regulations, says Norma Ruecker, leader of microbiology and watershed assessment in the Water Quality Services division at the City of Calgary.

"Every day, our analytical methods get better and we are finding out we have more and more things in water and wastewater," she says. "Knowledge has increased, technology has increased and public concern has increased. We need to stay ahead of the curve. We want to be part of the discussions with the province and the federal government to develop the best regulations and develop the best infrastructure to do the best by public health and the environment."

Processes refined through the ACWA initiative will have application far beyond municipal wastewater treatment, says Jackson. For example, they could be used to monitor water activity and quality remotely in isolated communities, as well as lead to the development of "smart sewers" that live-monitor effluent before it reaches the treatment plant. In the energy industry, the technologies could also be applied to test and treat wastewater at remote extraction or processing sites.

"If we understand how chemicals with different chemistries are affected by different technologies, we can then take that information and go to the oilsands and (determine) whether these technologies can be useful, as well."

Jamie Zachary